V.S.Naipaul’s Family Letters

I’ve actually still not begun to read my latest Landing Eight novel due to being drawn to dipping into a volume of letters between V.S (Vido) Naipaul and his father Seepersad (addressed as ‘Pa’). The collection is entitled Letters Between a Father and Son and was first published in 1999, more than twenty years after In a Free State. The bulk of the letters in this collection were written when Naipaul left Trinidad in 1950 to take up a place at Oxford.  The volume does also contain letters written to and from Naipaul’s elder sister Kamla so the title is slightly misleading. Sadly, Seepersad died in October 1953 while Naipaul was still in England, having acquired his BA in July of that year. The collection closes with letters charting Naipaul’s first major literary success.

Letters Between a Father and Son

Family letters

As readers of this blog will know, I love reading letters and diaries so when my other half drew my attention to this collection I was happy to be distracted. In an age of email, Skype and Facebook it is hard to imagine what it must have been like to leave your family behind and travel to a completely new country and just to have to rely on weekly or fortnightly letters for news. The collection begins with letters between Vido and Kamla, as she was the first to leave home, travelling to India to study. In the first letter, Vido describes to Kamla his efforts to organise his university application photographs, not being at all satisfied with the results: ‘I had hoped to send up a striking intellectual pose to the University people, but look what they have got. And I even paid two dollars for a re-touched picture’. 

After this humorous comment, Naipaul goes on to discuss his recent reading material, earning my profound disapproval by being extremely dismissive of Jane Austen’s writing. I had previously come across a reference to a speech that Naipaul made in 2011 in which he claimed that women writers (Austen included) were not the equal of men (and certainly not equal to him). This opinion clearly goes back some years as he seemed to have formed it at the tender age of seventeen and never revised it, saying then, ‘if she had lived in our age she would undoubtedly have been a leading contributor to the women’s papers’.  Rather damming I must say, though I assume he meant that at the very least, Austen would have written for a superior sort of women’s paper since even he admitted that ‘her diction was fine, of course’.

I have read contradictory opinions on Naipaul’s character, beliefs and attitudes as well as references to a whole slew of literary spats. If that’s not enough, you can also become embroiled in the question of his behaviour towards women.Without being familiar with his novels, non-fiction or life story, I’m not yet in a position to offer any comment other than to reflect upon what I have gleaned from the letters. Having reached the point at which Vido is a year or so into his studies, I’ve become much more attracted to Seepersad’s personality, both as a person and as a father offering help and advice. Seepersad at this point is working for the Trinidad Guardian and regularly offers wise advice on writing, studying and coping with life at Oxford, ‘Sometimes in our very loneliness you will produce that which will be something new and which you otherwise could not produce. Spot your drones and microbes among your fellow-creatures, but do not let them put you out of your centre [….] meanwhile be a man and cringe to none’.

I was intending merely to skim this collection of letters, but I have found myself reading on and following Naipaul’s early career as well as Kamla’s experiences in India and those of various family members who regularly pop up in the correspondence. I would like to know more about their mother, Droapatie Capildeo but so far, having reached January 1952 she remains (though clearly loved) very much a secondary figure. In one letter to Kamla in 1951, Vido writes ‘She is worthy of all we can give. We oughtn’t to disappoint her. She is the type who suffers in silence, poor dear! I love her; but who has shaped my live [sic], my views, my tastes? Pa.’ This sentiment seems rather sad, loving with faint praise, as it were. But maybe the picture will change further on. Perhaps the letters will shed also some light upon his views of the opposite sex in general. I will read on.

Meanwhile, as a Naipaul novice I would be interested in your thoughts. Till next time…